Writing may get most of the attention, and it is to improving my writing that I devote most of the time that I set aside for IGC Publishing, but there are a lot of other components that go into bringing a book to fruition, everything from the choice of paper and ink, to the binding style, to the cover art. Formatting of the writing plays a major and underappreciated role in rendering certain texts more or less readable, and awhile back I was digging into this field with the thought of one day being ready to format and print a novel. It was while I was doing this research that I first came across references to Writing 21st Century Fiction.
Now, this is not the sort of book that I would ordinarily read. Most of the how-to-write books that I’ve read have been by authors that I have read thoroughly, but this was not by anyone I had heard of before. It also appeared geared towards writing “high impact” fiction, which is not necessarily my goal. I mean, I would be pleased if my books came to be critically acclaimed or loved by millions of adoring fans, but my main goal with my writing is just to share the stories that I have rattling around in my peculiar skull. Nonetheless, I kept coming across references to and recommendations of this book, and decided to add it to my reading list.
I wish that the human brain was a better tool for diagnosing itself, because I would be very interested to know how much of my distaste for this book arose from the writing style, rather than the contents. To be honest, the writing sounded juvenile. It is my hope that the author adopted this style in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, rather than it being an actual reflection of their intellectual capacity, but I found it quite off-putting, and rather undermining to those parts of the book that are valid. While I realize that an inaccurate understanding of electromagnetism does not preclude wisdom in the area of fiction writing, making a blatantly invalid analogy does make me question how well the rest of the book was thought through before being published. And that was just the most obvious example; the whole tone of the book conveyed a similar impression.
There were certain parts of the book that were useful, like those that discuss trends in the fiction market, the differences (or lack thereof) between “literary” and “genre” fiction, how authors are differentiated between genres, categories, and brands, and the characteristics of certain highly regarded novels. Those observations it made about how to write, however, were either already known to me, like to engage a reader’s sense of awe, to provide exposition and description through the lens of character, and to guide the reader to experience what the character is experiencing, rather than telling them what the character is doing and feeling, or alternatively were of questionable veracity, at least for the sorts of stories that I try to write. Again, this may be a difference in intention.
It should have been clear to me when I read the list of books that it would be referencing and using as examples that the book probably wasn’t targeted towards the sorts of writing that I seek to do, or at improving what I would like to improve about my writing. The example titles were the sorts of books that I see listed in “top book” lists on GoodReads, and promptly know to avoid. They remind me of the sorts of books that were on all of those awards lists in school from which we were required to choose – the ones that convinced me that the awards were given out based on how depressing, cynical, and pessimistic you could make your book.
Most frustratingly, the book failed to adequately and rigorously explain how to apply and implement those few techniques and concepts which I thought might be of utility in my writing. As soon as the author began to drive down to the level of practical techniques, details, and implementation, he faltered, hand-waved, and invoked authorial magic. I realize that there are many people who do regard writing, and especially writing fiction, as a sort of magic art full of mystery, but I would have expected someone writing a book on how to write fiction to be in a position to strip back the mystery. Yes, there is an element of creativity that is exceedingly difficult to describe in a rigorous way, but Brandon Sanderson clearly explains how much of a process, and how technical, writing really is. Perhaps I am spoiled by the rigorous, decidedly non-magical nature of his online lectures.
This wasn’t a bad book, as much as I did not like it or derive much value from it. If you are new to writing, and just looking to start on your earliest pieces of fiction, then this might be a very good place to start. However, I would say that if you’ve done some research already and been writing for a while, even if you’re not published or successful yet, that you are unlikely to learn much. Perhaps the most useful thing about the book was the lists at the end of each chapter, which I could see myself referencing in a cursory way as I go through my revision process, just to remind myself of elements that I should be keeping in mind. So while I will not tell you not to bother reading Writing 21st Century Fiction, I think you would gain much more from watching Sanderson’s online lectures, listening to the Writing Excuses podcast, or reading a number of other how-to-write books by actual authors in your genre.